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EdTech Tip: Plagiarism

In our last EdTech Tip we discussed how we approach fact checking in the digital age.

One of the keys to fact checking is to put the onus on the writer: document your sources. This saves the fact checker time, and it has an added benefit—it makes it easier to  detect plagiarism.

Plagiarism is not necessarily something done by evil people. In fact, plagiarism can be inadvertent. In one project, we had a sharp editor who found some factual mistakes the writer had made. The editor replaced the errors with correct facts from the sources cited by the writer. The irony of the story: when the editor fixed the errors, it made the work much closer in look and feel to the fact-checking sources. This was later identified as plagiarism at the QC (quality control) stage of the project. Plagiarism was certainly not the editor’s intent; she was just fixing the manuscript. We all learned a bit from that experience.

How has technology changed how we handle plagiarism? Let me count the ways:

5 Tips for Avoiding and Detecting Plagiarism

1. Do a cost-benefit analysis for plagiarism software.

On the one hand, the Internet makes it much easier to copy and paste another person’s work . On the other hand, it’s also easier to use digital tools that readily detect plagiarism. The only catch: these tools can be expensive. It might be that on some projects, the potential loss in revenue is so large that it is worth budgeting for software that will fully mitigate the risk. On small projects, it may be necessary to cut corners and do plagiarism checks the old-fashioned way (such as doing Internet searches for strings of words that seem unique).

2. Have a clear policy in place.

It’s essential to have a clear policy that plagiarized work  won’t be accepted. That means the writer will have to fix any issues before getting paid, and this certainly motivates writers.

But remember that plagiarism often is not intentional, which means there should be an educational component to your policy. Share the definition of plagiarism with your writers, and let them know that digital plagiarism checks are part of your standard workflow. Here is a good place to start educating writers:

3. Be original!

Plagiarism isn’t only about the the words, it’s also about the structure (the “look and feel”). If your work is too similar in structure to a copyrighted work, there is a problem.

If something is common knowledge, then structure usually isn’t a plagiarism concern. If you are writing an essay describing the rules of baseball, for example, you can check a variety of  sources and you would likely see similar approaches describing the number of players on a team, how long the game lasts, what a baseball diamond looks like, and so on. But an essay on the rules of curling, for example, might be problematic.

The solution? Think of a creative and unusual way to convey your ideas. For example, you might compare the rules of curling to the rules of bocce. Then do an Internet check to see if this is truly original. If not, tweak your structure a little more so that it becomes original.

4. Cite sources without interrupting the flow.

If a work uses ideas that are copyrighted, they must be cited. The OWL website at Purdue is an excellent resource for MLA style citations.

In K–12 educational publishing, we tend to avoid footnotes, and in some disciplines you wouldn’t quote a source. So editors and writers need ways to give credit where credit is due, without distracting the reader. One way to do this is to supply writers with a few boilerplates so the text will be varied. Another way is to use linked text that takes the reader to a citation list.

5. It’s not just an editorial task.

Check the graphics also. You may remember an earlier blog post about using image search engines. When a writer submits an art spec on a math project, they usually supply “scrap”—it could be a digital sketch, a scanned drawing, or an existing Internet image. The scrap guides the artist, but it is important to train artists and designers to avoid using the look and feel of original copyrighted works.

Images a writer submits may help you sleuth sources the writer used but didn’t disclose in the accompanying fact documentation. The first step is to find the original artwork on the Internet, and that is where image search engines are a great time saver.

We’d love to hear your plagiarism war stories! Please join the conversation using the comments.

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